Bureaucracy, Politics… and Changing the World: What It’s Like to Design at a Global Scale

 Design in the corporation


Shaun Lynch - Photo by Sam Winslet
Image: Shaun Lynch, a visual design wizard in his natural habitat: tucked away in a corner behind a wall of monitors (photo by Sam Winslet)

Designing can be a challenge within corporations, especially for new designers. The organizational structure is complex, and there are many layers of management to contend with. Days get packed with events and meetings to attend, which creates a very different environment and pace from that of a small design agency. Given the historic culture of a corporation, you can easily find yourself following existing norms and getting drawn into office politics.

But that hasn’t been my experience at IBM Design. As an employee at this over 100-year old company, I’ve (to my surprise) experienced constant encouragement towards disruptive innovation. For creatives like myself, this is great, since it’s the design process and the delivery of real outcomes that I find most enjoyable. For example, I became one of the founders of a global Internet of Things community within my first year at IBM.

IBM Design Bootcamp as launch pad 

As a designer at IBM, I regularly learn alongside top thinkers in my field. This week, one such design luminary visited our global studios: Gordon Bruce (assistant to an esteemed former IBM Designer, Eliot Noyes). One sentence of his talk stuck with me:

“I love designing products, but redesigning the mind—now that’s really amazing.”

His statement uncovers a unique component of IBM Design: the incredible investment that IBM makes in training its newly hired designers. In fact, they’re so good at it that they’ve literally won awards—particularly for their three-month onboarding program, “IBM Design Bootcamp.”

In fact, the whole IoT project was kick-started during my own three-month IBM Design Bootcamp in Austin, Texas. IBM Design Bootcamps are a chance for new hires to hack and explore IBM Design Thinking. The design process teaches us to start low-fi and fail fast to ensure we make the right thing.

Paper prototyping tools - Photo by Sam Winslet
Image: Paper protoyping tools (photo by Sam Winslet)

During my IBM Design Bootcamp in the summer of 2014, we used IBM Design Thinking to come up with a new solution for enabling IoT developers to discover and share projects. Our five-person team spent six weeks on the project. After all the research, I hacked together a coded prototype for the new IoT community to gather feedback from users, starting with the IBM community—which, mind you, happens to be a 300,000-ish group of some of the most crazy brilliant minds on the planet. Could you even ask for a better network of colleagues?

A good idea sells itself

Dr Steve Hasky - photo by Sam Winslet
Image: Dr Steve Haskey, IBM Design Lead (photo by Sam Winslet)

Dr Haskey, the Design Lead for our six-week IoT project, once told me:

“A well designed solution should sell itself because it’s what people need.”

And he was right. Our DeveloperWorks Recipes site has caused a social media stir since release day. Reporters from over 35 tech news sites picked up the story. Forbes described the site as:

“A spin on the vibrant and thriving Maker community.”

Since going live in July 29, 2015, we’ve already had 100 recipes published to help other users get started using the Internet of Things on IBM’s IoT platform.  This effort, borne of our IBM Design Bootcamp work in mid-2014, was the beginning of our IoT Foundation Services, which has now mushroomed into an entire IBM Business Unit.

Be a part of change

It’s been an amazing experience to produce real outcomes driven entirely by real user research. But there’s something bigger happening here, and I’m certainly not the only IBM Designer who feels that way. A recent New York Times cover story on IBM Design quoted my colleague Joe Kendall:

Mr. Kendall, 28, finished a two-year graduate design program at Stanford and joined IBM in June. He chose IBM over Apple, where he would have worked in its iPhone business. At Apple, he figured, his opportunity would be to help make a great product a little bit better. At IBM, Mr. Kendall sees a different opportunity. “No one is using design thinking to solve problems on this scale,” he said, adding that he could be part of “changing the future of this giant entity.”

My story is just one example of the many influences design is having at IBM.  As seen in the excellent case study by Forrester on how IBM is building a design driven culture at scale, we’re also heavily invested in linking design to product management and engineering. Thanks to this transformation, anyone at IBM (not just designers) can use the principles of IBM Design Thinking to create top-of-the-line solutions that put users first.

IBM Designers - Photo by Sam Winslet
Image: IBM designers (photo by Sam Winslet)


Content authored by Graeme Fulton (@graeme_fulton) & Rachel Sibley (@sibleyspeaks)

Graeme Fulton works for IBM Design, as a front-end developer on the Internet of Things. His passion and aims revolve around creating well designed user experiences and intuitive interfaces. He enjoys sharing what he is learning with others through his blog (graemefulton.com).

Photo credits: Sam Winslet. Find him on twitter @the_winslet 

Editorial Curation: Rachel Sibley. Find her on twitter @sibleyspeaks

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